Briefing the UK’s Election – and Why it Matters to Americans

Polling station in Great Britain. (C) secretlondon123 - via Wikimedia Commons

Polling station in Great Britain. (C) secretlondon123 – via Wikimedia Commons.

We’re less than a year away from the Iowa caucuses – and already there are six declared candidates vying to be the next GOP nominee, with more than a dozen other serious to semi-serious contenders lurking in the wings. In the other party, Hillary Clinton continues her almost unchallenged march towards nomination victory – notwithstanding Bernie Sanders’ surprising showing in some polls.

The 2016 election, it would seem, has been going on for years. The cycle has gotten to be so long that Americans might be forgiven for failing to notice that some of the world’s other democracies manage to run their elections, start to finish, in less time than it takes American politicians to flip flop on agricultural subsidies.

The British, for example, just managed to pull theirs off in a few short months. In their last general election, in 2010, no party received enough votes to form a majority government. But the Conservatives effectively ousted Labour from power after receiving the most seats, and they went on to form an awkward coalition government with the Liberal-Democrats.

This time around, the Conservatives won a surprising outright majority. Labour and the Liberal-Democrats both suffered thorough defeats, with the latter being relegated to an electoral afterthought. Afterwards, both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband – the leaders of Labour and the Liberal-Democrats, respectively – called it quits.

The election also resulted in the resignation of Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – though he later went on to rescind that resignation and stay on as party leader. Thanks to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, UKIP won a single seat in the House of Commons, even though it took away 12.6% of the vote.

A populist right-wing libertarian party, UKIP has put noticeable pressure on the Conservatives over the past several years – and therein lies one of the important global repercussions of the United Kingdom’s election. As protection against a possible UKIP surge, David Cameron, the reelected Prime Minister and leader of the Conservatives, promised an in-or-out referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union. Having won an outright majority, David Cameron will have to deliver. The repercussions could be enormous.

To date, no country that has joined the EU has ever left it – though it has become more and more possible to imagine a world in which at least one of it’s members, Greece, might be asked to leave. For the British, EU membership is complicated, with a wide-array of benefits and costs. For Americans, however, things look a bit different. To simplify, the British make the EU more pro-American and more inclined towards the sort of open-trade that benefits American businesses than it would otherwise be. With the United Kingdom gone, the European Union would be both weaker and more insular. In short, it would be a less powerful, less useful, and less sympathetic ally for the US at a time when the ascendency of China and India, along with the newfound belligerence of Russia, mean that the US will have to work harder to protect its interests and values on the international scene.

Human rights would also suffer.

Without the UK, the EU also be less stable. It has become easy for Americans to think of Europe as a generally peaceful, if perhaps decadent, place. It should not, however, be forgotten that such peace remains a historical anomaly. The European project of political and economic integration began as an effort to bind France and Germany together after the calamity of two world wars. The longstanding quip has been that the alliance is meant to disguise French weakness and German strength. But the economic difficulty of the past ten years has placed that fiction under strain; a British exit from the EU would expose it further.

And little comfort is to be gained from the fact that European leaders appear to be overly confident in the stability of their institutional framework. For decades, Europe has consolidated influence over national prerogatives in official and unofficial ways – consider, for example, the emergence of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as the de facto leader of Europe. Or the role that the European Central Bank has played in managing the economies of Portugal and Greece.

But this centralization of power hasn’t been accompanied by the emergence of democratic institutions or by the development of a new sort of pan-European political identity. This is the source of the much-discussed democratic deficit in the European Union, a deficit that Europe has largely ignored. If the UK holds an in-or-out referendum, it will strike at the soft underbelly of the European project.

The potential fallout is complicated in another way reflected in the UK’s election results: the arrival of the Scottish National Party (SNP) as a major player. Having already decimated Labour in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP won a resounding victory and 56 seats. That’s 50 more than they held previously, even though they did it with only 4.7% of the vote. Compare that to the 12.6% UKIP received, which in their case was only good for one seat and you start to get a sense for how UKIP members might be feeling right now. But SNP’s showing was good for control of almost every district in Scotland.

Why does this matter to Americans? Because earlier this year Scotland came very close to approving an independence referendum. If the UK votes to leave the European Union, then you can be certain that Scotland will hold another referendum, and this time it will pass. Asked to chose between the UK and the EU, Scotland will chose the latter. Then what? The EU would have to decide on whether or not to allow Scotland to join the EU under an expedited process. It would have no good reason for saying no, or at least no reason laid out by prior precedent or by the universal values that the EU likes to say that it upholds. But it would wreak havoc on member states, since many of them have vibrant separatist movements that would find much encouragement in the idea that they could remain in the EU even after declaring independence.

But even if the British don’t vote to leave the union, the SNP will still lobby for a second referendum and might very well get it. Their continued electoral surge shouldn’t encourage partisans of a united United Kingdom.

In the US, pundits tend to impose their tired left-right political landscape on elections in other countries. This approach is seldom productive and rarely relevant. For example, the Conservatives just won power in the UK with the help of President Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina. But that won’t stop some pundits from seeing Labour’s defeat as a bad portent of things to come for the American left, never mind the fact that the Labour party is far to the left of US Democrats.

No, the UK election gets us no closer to knowing who will win the American general election in 2016, but it does give as a sense of what kind of world the winners of that election might have to confront. That world, it seems, could be one with weaker American allies in Europe and a European Union straining under the forces of dissolution.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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